This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. Agenda 21 recommends developing and implementing information technology to enhance the dissemination of information for sustainable development.
The rapid advancement in information technology (IT) in recent years continues to transform the global economy through its effects on information processing, productivity and competitiveness. Technology advances and the low cost and miniaturization of microchips, a key component of information technology, have offered new opportunities in terms of access to and use of information technology. This has led to the spread of information technology in all aspects of social and economic activities in both industrialized and developing countries.
[Developing and transitional countries] Advances in IT have vastly expanded the range of services that can be traded internationally. Developing countries stand to benefit on two fronts: they will be able to increase their exports of services and they will gain access to services not available domestically, provided they reform the regulatory environment and develop the necessary human and physical capital.
However, to date, the diffusion of IT in most developing countries and economies in transition has been slow, especially in the former Soviet Union. The reasons for this are different in the two cases. Whereas, in developing countries, particularly the least developed among them, the causes can be traced to lack of specific IT strategies and policies, low levels of technical personnel, lack of supporting infrastructure, lack of investments, and inability to keep pace with rapidly changing technology, in the case of the economies in transition, the problems are related to the need to improve and redeploy telecommunications and current information technology infrastructure and other resources from military to civilian use. Developing countries in general have the opportunity to leapfrog by acquiring information technology and pursuing an explicit policy in this field, provided they have the necessary infrastructure and institutional support, including the requisite skills.
[Industrialized countries] In industrialized countries, electronic mail and networks in general have allowed users to obtain better access to data banks located nationally and internationally. These services are slowly making inroads into developing countries, though at present, getting onto a network such as INTERNET requires investment in support services and efficient telecommunications systems, which are currently unobtainable in a number of developing countries. For the foreseeable future, therefore, the need for investment in support services, as well as the low level of development of telecommunications systems in developing countries, may exclude some of these countries, particularly the least developed among them, from actively participating in the rapidly growing global information network. Thus, in the transition to the twenty-first century, the risk of greater marginalization of low-income economies and low-income social groups from the global information revolution is one important challenges that should be addressed by the international community.
The rapid changes arising from the gradual removal of trade barriers in many industrialized and developing countries, as well as countries in transition, have also enhanced the opportunities offered by information technology for efficient and lower-cost trading. Initiatives taken by UNCTAD in this area may help to illustrate the point further. In the recent United Nations National Symposium on Trade Efficiency, calls were made for measures to increase efficiency in international trade, reduce costs and barriers, and improve the participation of poorer countries in rapidly expanding trade and communications networks. To this end, the Symposium launched the Trade Point Global Network, which will consist of trade points located in various regions of the world interconnected in a worldwide electronic network and equipped with efficient telecommunications mm tools to link up with other global networks. The centralized network allows access to services required for international transactions. In effect, therefore, the "trade efficiency initiative responds to an urgent need to increase the international awareness and effective application of information technologies to trade".
A closely related service is the electronic trading opportunities (ETO) system, which provides subscribers worldwide with a single point of contact for their trade and business opportunities. The (ETO) system, also assist potential traders from diverse countries by matching the trading opportunities between them. Increasingly, therefore, information technology is playing a key role in facilitating trade efficiency and providing opportunities for developing countries to participate effectively in international trade.
However, there are alternatives that are making access to international data-bases possible to many developing country computer users. FIDONET is such a programme. It is a low-cost method of linking computer bulletin board systems through ordinary telephone lines that allow users to overcome the constraints of utilizing the telecommunication systems during peak hours. The network systems automatically contact each other at night, when phone rates are low, to exchange conference postings and electronic mail messages.
The ETO service is supervised by the Special Programme for Trade Efficiency of the UNCTAD secretariat. The secretariat has also been responsible for the launching of the Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA), which is a data bank on customs regulations and procedures.
The existence of different information technology systems has meant that users become reluctant to invest in new systems that are incompatible with others currently installed in-house, as well as those used by partner firms - for example, subcontractors, equipment manufacturers and raw-material producers. The problems arising from the multiplicity of standards are compounded by the rapid rate of obsolescence due to technical change and the investments involved in support services. The options for standardization, particularly at the national level, require further investigation.
As far as can be deduced from the available data, there appears to be a positive correlation between the rapid diffusion and application of information technology and the level of education, both general and technical. The experiences of the newly industrializing countries of Asia are illustrative. Some countries, for example Singapore, have demonstrated that, with a high level of general and technical education, "leapfrogging is possible and that countries could become advanced users of information technology without substantial information technology industrial capabilities". A high literacy rate among the general population is essential, as well as the formulation of training programmes mm es to improve computer literacy. In addition, people with special technical skills in computer sciences – for example, programming, data analysis, microcomputer processing and maintenance of information technology equipment – will also be required.
For developing countries wishing to accelerate the diffusion and application of information technology, investments in education in general and technical skills in particular are essential requirements. In some developing countries, particularly the least developed among them, literacy rates are as low as 27%, as compared to over 90% in the industrialized countries, the newly industrializing countries of Asia and certain economies in transition.
The revolution in information technology continues to transform the global economy through its effects on information processing, productivity and competitiveness. This revolution affects all aspects of society. As recently noted, the revolution "... has only just begun, but already it's starting to overwhelm us. It's outstripping our capacity to cope, antiquating our laws, transforming our mores, reshuffling our economy, reordering our priorities, redefining our workplaces, invading our privacy, and shifting our concept of reality". There is a consensus that the transition to the twenty-first century will witness a quantum leap in the development and exploitation of information technologies, with corresponding ramifications for social and economic organization, the environment, culture and the development of a global information infrastructure. The key issues of concern to policy-makers and international organizations are the extent to which this major transformation has benefited all aspects of society and the ways and means of achieving a truly global information infrastructure. Thus, it is timely for the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development to give greater attention in its future work programme to the opportunities offered and challenges posed by the rapidly evolving information society.
The high cost of energy, the low capacity of the power-generation infrastructure, and the poor maintenance of power supply systems have also been major impediments to the application and diffusion of information technology systems in a number of developing countries. In many low-income developing countries, for example, there are frequent power supply interruptions and power surges large enough to cause serious damage to information technology systems and result in the loss of information.